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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
A Crane Beach Poem
For nearly a quarter of a century, I have held onto three rolls of adding machine paper, each inscribed with a slightly different version of my 1,300-word poem, “Crane Beach.” The rolls, once white and crisp, are now yellow and tattered. The rubber bands I once put around them have long ago cracked and fallen off. Although awkward and prone to unspooling, the rolls have moved with me from cheap apartments in Boston to my first house in Portland, Oregon, taking up residence in my various ever-optimistic, inactive art studios.
In 1988, after living land-locked in Ohio for 11 years, I moved to Boston seeking ocean air and a more urban art community. My Boston friend, Plum, took me on a day trip to Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts, stopping for fried clams and cider doughnuts on the way. But it was the beach that satiated my cravings. The four-mile-long beach was a showplace for ripples in the pale sand. The flat beach was a giant canvas for water and wind. The ephemeral waves took form, stiff, in the sand. I came back time and again during my three years in Boston, with camera, roll of film, and journal in hand.
When I lived in Boston, I was in my late twenties and engaged to a lobsterman I had met in Maine six years earlier. We had first glimpsed each other across the Monhegan Island harbor. I was on a ferry pulling up, and he was standing on the dock next to a rusted truck. Our eyes met, locked and, although we didn’t speak the whole week I was there, I slipped him my address on a ripped piece of a map on my way home. He sent me a postcard three years later and we started dating two years after that. But now that we were living together in Boston, I was starting to have doubts. Lies were starting to peek out from his hippy veneer.
In contrast, the beauty I saw on the beach gave me some faith that there was an inherent grace in the world, as if I had stumbled behind Mother Nature’s curtain and found no deceit. This elegance was truly elemental; it had nothing to do with attraction wrought by society or Darwin’s natural selection. This was just pure grace, built sand grain by sand grain with the hand of physics.
I took close-ups of the water and sand on each of my trips back to Crane Beach, and I wrote bits of descriptive poetry in my journal about this “birthing ground of order.” The beach had a sequence that was the same each visit: crashing waves, wet sand, dry sand, lagoon, dry sand again, dune, salt marsh. I wanted the photographs and the poem to follow this same intrinsic progression with the beginning describing the water, then the wet sand, and on up the beach. If I really wanted a direct correlation from beach to poem, why not write the poem on a piece of paper as long as the trajectory from water to salt marsh? Then I could lay the poem down on its wet and sandy subject and photograph the paper against the very sand it was describing. The circle of representation would be complete.
I didn’t have much money, but I found some cheap adding machine paper that was three inches wide and a hundred feet long. On one roll, I wrote out the draft poem with three to four words per line, but the whole thing ended up being only 18 feet long. On the next roll, I wrote only two words per line, but it still wasn’t long enough. Finally, I wrote one word per line on a third roll and it was a good 70 feet long, maybe long enough to reach from water to marsh. The lobsterman and I took this roll to the beach bu,t as soon as we began to unfurl it, the wind snatched it up, pulled one end up in the air, and threatened to tear it to pieces. We quickly rolled it up and gave up on the silly, impractical idea, taking the scroll home to sit on my shelf for the next 24 years.
I visited Crane Beach again the next year on my way to give birth. The beach was only 20 miles out of the way, and it felt like a touchstone I needed to see, to get me through my labor. It was a windy winter day. The lobsterman and I stumbled a few yards out onto the empty sand, but the ripples were all gone in a blur of an ankle-deep sandstorm. The wind pushed us back to the car, and we hustled over to the birth center where, in six hours, I pushed out a baby boy named Sage.
Fast forward to 2012. I am 53. Sage is in college finishing a degree in economics while my daughter, Annie Dove, is now enrolled as a freshman majoring in art. The marriage to the lobsterman ended 12 years ago in a stuttering stream of addictions and infidelities. I have moved to the left coast, enjoying another kind of beach, cold, stony, and majestic. There in my room are the yellowed rolls of adding machine paper. I read one, unrolling it as I go. The words surprise me. I have a hard time believing I wrote them. In the intervening 24 years, I have gotten my MFA in Creative Nonfiction, learning to write the clear and comprehensible essay. But these poetic words have their own opaque logic and such indulgent alliteration. I don’t think I could write that poem again in a million years. In a flash of conviction, I decide to revisit Crane Beach and try again to lay the poem down on the sand and photograph it.
Three months later, I am on Crane Beach. It is 6 a.m., a time in which the wind cannot grab up my words and tear them into pieces. The light is pinkish apricot and the seagulls stand in violet water. I have hired a sound engineer to record the beach sounds and me reading the poem. She is pointing her microphone at a trickle of water returning to the ocean. My daughter and my friend Plum spread out sections of the printed 154-foot poem, and we look for sand to match the words. The ripples are just as I remembered and the poem still rings true. Twenty four years’ difference is the same as a day’s.
After photographing from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., the first day’s photos are a wash. Looking at them on my laptop, I see glare on the water, shadows and feet mistakenly in the frame, and a smudge in the middle of each picture. The next morning, I set out by myself, thinking that I need to attack this project alone. I rip off sections of the poem and photograph them without worrying so much about the sand matching. It seems to me that the composition of the photographs is more important — something I will regret later when I go to make a book of photographs to match each piece of the poem. I race up and down the beach taking pictures. At one point, in mid-afternoon, with the shore full of beachgoers, I strip off my dress and leave it in a pile on the beach while I wade into the water in bra and underwear to photograph the poem in deep water. I feel giddy and driven to complete this project. The printed word looks so attractive against the sand. And especially underwater. Thankfully, the ink doesn’t run.
Over three days I take 1,041 pictures. They get better and better and the ones taken by my nearly naked self in deep water are the best. Seeing them on my computer screen is like seeing a photograph emerging in a tray of developer — after 24 years they are the pictures I wanted to take, so long ago.
Sara Kirschenbaum is a writer and artist in Portland, Oregon. She has enjoyed three Tin House writing workshops, studying with the amazing writers: Karen Karbo, Abigail Thomas, and Ann Hood. Her writing has been published in Calyx, Fiction International, J Journal, Kalliope, Mothering Magazine, The Oregonian, Poetica, Portland Parent, the Portland Tribune, and other publications. She has been a guest commentator for NPR’s Marketplace and has published on Salon.com. She is currently working on a memoir about postpartum OCD. Find out more about Crane Beach here.